By Alec Russell in Washington and Mike Pflanz in Nairobi
America is secretly returning to the scene of one of its greatest military debacles as it backs an alliance of secular warlords engaged in war-torn Somalia's recent eruption of fighting.
Memories of the disastrous 1993 intervention in Somalia, which climaxed in the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters and the deaths of 18 US soldiers, depicted in the film Black Hawk Down, still haunt the US military and the American heartland.
But amid escalating concerns that al-Qa'eda sympathisers are seeking to make Somalia a base for Islamist terrorism, it emerged yesterday that America is once again playing warlord politics, siding with a secular alliance of warlords against Islamic militias.
Such an approach backfired badly in the 1990s when American forces took sides and became embroiled in factional politics. However, a senior US administration official told The Daily Telegraph yesterday: "The president is not going to allow Somalia to become a safe haven for terrorists."
An estimated 130 people, most of them civilians, were killed and 300 injured after the latest surge in fighting between militia loyal to hard-line Islamic courts and forces allied to the alliance of powerful businessmen and warlords.
Officials in Washington would not confirm the precise nature of their involvement with the self-styled Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism, which has been fighting for primacy in Mogadishu.
But they made clear that the key issue in their approach to Somalia was who was with them and who was against them in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
"Currently there is great instability in Somalia," the senior administration official said. "The United States is concerned that in this environment al-Qa'eda may use Somalia for a base for terrorist activities around the globe. Around the world the United States will work with regional and international partners to prevent countries becoming terrorist safe havens."
America is determined to limit the power of Somalia's Islamic courts. Although they help to provide some limited health services and schooling, the courts push Islam's sharia law and are thought to be sympathetic to al-Qa'eda operatives believed to be hiding out in Mogadishu.
Cells based in Somalia have been linked to the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and attacks on an Israeli airliner and a hotel in the Kenyan resort town of Mombasa in 2002, according to intelligence sources. A US intelligence official told the Washington Post that Somalia was a classic case of having to work with the "enemy of our enemy". US involvement is controversial in Somalia where memories of the American intervention which ended in a humiliating withdrawal run deep.
Hundreds of chanting Somalis marched through Mogadishu's lawless streets calling for peace and also denouncing any outside involvement. "We don't want people who take dollars to kill us," read one protester's banner. "Down with America, down with the warlords", read another.
Somalia is on its 14th attempt in almost 15 years to establish a government. The interim administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf has been paralysed by internal rifts since its formation in Kenya late in 2004.